Speaker: Mark H.
Recorded by daughter Nicole H., February 15, 2004
Lake Nebagamon, Wisconsin
Listen to the narrative (MP3), approximately 9 minutes.
NH I'm interviewing my dad for the Wisconsin Weather Stories. So Dad, you said you had an interesting weather story for me. Can you tell me about this story?
MH Yeah, this was back in about 1985. Called it the Labor Day Storm. We were doing a highway construction project out on Highway 13 just outside of Superior. The rain started about 10 o’clock. It must have been Monday evening on Labor Day. It started raining about 10 o’clock that evening and the home we lived in was a Wausau-style home so you could really hear the rain hitting on the roof with the open-type ceilings. It rained just buckets until about 12 o’clock and it was about that time in the evening I received a phone call. Somebody from our office has called and said we had water going over our temporary roadway out on Highway 13. so he said, “Could you get together with the foreman from your project—the foreman that worked for the contractor—go out there and see what we can do to help save the roadway.”
So I got in my car and I, first of all I called the foreman and then I got in my car and went for a ride with my wife at that time. We went out and headed out towards the project. We were living in South Range up on the hill at the time and as we started traveling down, down the hill, we could see a lot of the drainage runs were filled with water and at one location even with, you could see somebody's wood pile was floating right across the highway. The water'd come up so high and took on their wood pile and started dragging it right across the highway. But we got through some of those low areas cause the water was still coming up.
So it was getting around 12:30, 1:00, we started heading towards the project on Highway 13 just out east of Superior. We were trying to get to what they call the location of the windmill out there. On our way out there we came to the couple of cricks called Dutchman and Morrison. Well the water had gone up so high by that time that it was running right over the Highway 13 at the, I believe that was the Dutchman Crick. So we had to stop there and turn around and then we headed back towards our home.
And then while we were trying to get back going towards home, the same way we came the first time, all the little old spots in the highway we were traveling were all full of water by that point so we had no way of getting through to get back home. At that point we turned around and started heading back toward Superior we were able to get into Superior.
We stopped at a restaurant and had some hot chocolate I believe at that time, and it was still raining hard. It was probably getting around 2 or 3 in the morning by this time. And just talking with some different people we found out we might be able to get home if we headed back south on Highway 35 towards Patterson Park and then come in from the southwest to get back home. So we went that direction. Went down Highway 35, crossed County B, back up County K, and back into South Range which was back on top of the hill. We kind of have a view. We can look over Lake Superior at that location. There was a lot of high water in all the streams but luckily that direction going back home we were able to get back home. And wait at least 'til the morning when the rain let up a little bit to go back out to the highway to see what had happened.
Now when we got back home it was about 4:30 in the morning, I guess it was. And around 6 o'clock, I suppose, we got up and I headed back out to the project. By that time the water had gone down enough that you could drive on most of the county roads and state roads. We headed out to the project. And when I got out to the project we were doing on Highway 13, we were working on the project down by Miller Crick at that time—it was the second year of a two year project—we had a temporary roadway we had put in with just a smaller 24-inch temporary pipe. In the new road we had about a 6-foot pipe under it. Well the little 24-inch pipe didn't handle the water so the new roadway being alongside our little just temporary roadway was probably 15 to 20 feet higher. The water had built up that high, almost 15 to 20 feet. And at that location, we already had our sand and gravel on the new roadway on top of the clay embankment, the clay fill that has been built. The clay all stayed but all the sand and gravel was washed off the new roadway, cut right through it, and just washed it into the ditch on the north side of the highway. You could see at that location where we had almost 15 to 20 feet of water had been standing over night at that location so there was no way we were gonna get out there to try to do anything, even if you could get to the location.
Other areas in the same storm up towards Port Wing also had some pretty extensive damage. Port Wing has three directions to get to it by unless you come by Lake Superior. You can come from the west on Highway 13. You can come from the east on Highway 13, or the south on County Highway A. Well every direction there was a stream crossing or bridge or culvert that either got washed out or taken out by the storm so at that time Port Wing was cut off from three different directions. They were completely cut off for anyway you were trying to come and go from that community all caused by the same rainstorm. All the estimates were the rain was any wheres from, depending where you're at, six to eight inches of rain fell in that heavy down pour that night and caused all these streams up in the clay basin that all drain into Lake Superior, all the flood over that night.
It was quite a remarkable rain event that most people that out in it will probably never forget. And the damage it did to the existing roadways was unbelievable. A lot of work and maintenance work had to be done for the next week or two afterwards just to get the roads back open to traffic just to get them passable again.
NH So about how long were you out in that storm?
MH Oh, we left home about 12 o'clock that night, midnight, when I received that call and we got back close to home about 4:30, 5:00 the next morning, just by the time we found a way. We had tried getting home from the north, the northeast on some town and county roads but everywhere we went either pipes were washed out or the water was over the road so we couldn't get back. But like I said earlier, we were able to get back when we came in from the southwest. We went down towards Patterson Park and came back up County B and K and were able to come back to South Range on top of the hill that direction. So we were out, we were out a good four to five hours that night in this rainstorm.
NH Have you ever experienced something like that before?
MH Well nothing prior to that point and I've never seen that many inches of rain in that amount of time up in this clay area. I have seen other rain storms where they've hit that I wasn't in where I went to the next day down towards St. Croix Falls, where they had also a six to eight inch rain in probably just a shorter duration and what that can do to damage, especially when you're in the process of building a roadway when everything's kind of open, it's amazing what that amount of water can do. It's way over things that are designed, bridges are designed to handle hundred year floods, hundred year storms. Well something like this was way more than a hundred years storm and the design of bridges and culverts weren't made for that large a storm so things just don't hold up and you have to repair things when they get done after those.
NH So would you have said that you were scared when you were out in the storm?
MH Well, I don't know that there was a lot of lightening or anything but the scariest part of it all was every time you traveled through one of those shallow ravines and there's water going over the road you really had to be careful incase the road was washed out. Some of the areas, the road was washed out and we had to turn around and go back. And there was fire departments out there helping, closing roads off, trying to pull cars that were stalled out of locations. Cause you had to be careful also, cars don't get trapped down in these little swells and get washed downstream like it happen in some flash floods. Most of the problem the fear of anything here was just when you were traveling when you came to these ravines with water over the road, that the roadway was still in place.
NH So it was just you and your wife?
MH Yep, it was just the two of us and then I think we ended up finding somebody that had a stalled car and giving them a ride back into Superior. They weren't able to get home either. Then we met some people in a restaurant in town that night talking so we could find our way back, so everybody was out kind of in the same problem, having the same problem—getting around the county that night.
NH Thank you.